|Chris Chávez and Van Rockwell|
by Gil Benbrook
Tonight, Mesa Encore Theatre, in partnership with Virtual Theater Lab, launches its first virtual production with the documentary style theatrical drama, The Laramie Project, which focuses on the aftermath of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard.
Moisés Kaufman's 2000 play, that he wrote in cooperation with members of the Tectonic Theater Project, was created from hundreds of interviews the theatre company members conducted with inhabitants of Laramie, Wyoming. Those interviews, along with news reports and journal entries are woven together to create an emotional, intense and moving work.
When The Laramie Project initially premiered, the cast included 8 actors who all played multiple parts. For this virtual production, MET has expanded the size of the cast, with permission, to include over 40 performers from across the Valley. The individual film pieces that feature this large cast have been edited together to resemble a documentary film, which ties in perfectly to how the play is presented. The production will stream from tonight through October 12.
Co-directors Chris Chávez and Van Rockwell took a few minutes from last minute preparations for the streaming of this production to answer some questions about the play, the process behind filming it, and how the impact of Shepard's death still resonates 22 years after it happened.
For someone who has never heard of The Laramie Project how would you describe it?
Chris Chávez: "The Laramie Project is a documentary style theatre piece in which a play was created from hundreds of interviews with residents of Laramie following the murder of Matthew Shepard. It’s a play that colors the picture of a tight knit community and shows how one horrifying event can have a profound effect on that community for better or for worse. It is a think piece, but does not try to sway you no matter what side of the spectrum you are on."
Van Rockwell: "Even before Chris and I began our virtual journey, I’ve always described it as a documentary in play format. It’s an also an examination of how a tragedy can affect a small town resided of people of all ages, backgrounds, and upbringings. The play never forms a side, but instead allows perspectives and emotions from residents when an act of evil can happen suddenly overnight and rock the foundation of a community."
How does this show speak to you?
Chávez: "As a director, I often seek out or prefer to direct shows that have some kind of profound message. The Laramie Project is one of these plays. Through the content, it’s a play that has not only the ability to move people, but to also bring about a call to action. For many, this incident that happened 22 years ago is a just a faded memory, but for many others it is a stark reality. It is a reminder that incidents like the murder of Matthew Shepard are still happening and that we as a society must take action in order to prevent such atrocities from happening.
Rockwell: "Theatre has the facility to entertain, but it also has the profound ability to affect and welcome change. The Laramie Project did just that for me. If the abhorrence and rage shown to those in the LGBTQ community bothers me so much as a straight man, how must it affect those who are the fabric of the community? While life in the United States has improved significantly for the community in the (20) years since The Laramie Project premiered, we continue to face a long road ahead in regards to improvement.
Can you tell us a little about how this production will be different than a typical stage version of the show?
Chávez: "In a typical stage version of this show you usually have small cast that plays the 60+ residents of Laramie. Although initially we wanted to do the same thing and have a small cast play multiple roles, we decided that we would instead utilize as many actors as we possibly could. There are a few that double roles, but for the most part, actors are playing a singular role. We obviously didn’t have the liberties of a stage, set, or costumes, so with what resources we had available, we set up different locales or shot on location, had actors provide costume pieces, and so forth. The Laramie Project easily lends itself to this type of minimalistic, bare bones production. This script is really more about the content rather than the frills. In addition to that, since the pandemic hit, we have all seen many a virtual live play, but we wanted The Laramie Project to be different in presentation. We didn’t want people just reading from a script looking out into the void, we wanted to be innovative and give actors a chance to be able to utilize their theatrical skills outside of a virtual setting. We have all been looking for an outlet of some sort with theatres being closed, so we also wanted this to be a chance for actors to scratch that itch."
Rockwell: "This is virtual storytelling. It’s cinematic in nature, but our focus was equal components story and performance. We didn’t have the luxury of a hefty film budget and we certainly didn’t feel it had to be edited like a modern blockbuster. You won’t see boxes on a computer screen of people sitting and reading dialogue off a screen. You won’t have technical setbacks in the middle of the read, or pets or kids or loved ones photo-bombing in the background. We’re using the beauty of cinema to convey, ultimately, a theatrical experience."
Why the decision to co-direct the show and how were responsibilities handled?
Why the decision to co-direct the show and how were responsibilities handled?
Chávez: "When MET began talking about producing this show, I knew I wanted to be part of it. This is one show I have been wanting to direct for some time. Then, we discussed the timelines and logistics of the show. There was a very quick casting and short turn around for the production to “go up”. With all other life obligations, I knew this was not something I would be able to do alone. So I started talking to Van and a co-directing team was born. We then proposed the idea to MET and the rest, as they say, is history. Regarding responsibilities, it was very evenly distributed. Although I’ve known Van for years, this was my first collaboration with him and I could not have asked for a better co-director. We both saw eye to eye on most everything and knew exactly what we wanted to do with the show. We both are extremely collaborative and flexible, so tasks were always distributed evenly, and if I wasn’t able to do something, he would take it on and vice-versa. There were never arguments or major disagreements, it was always about the integrity of the show. This is just something I simply could not have done without him, Travis our stage manager, or David our video editor, both who also performed in the production."
Rockwell: "Between filming and rehearsals and research and casting and marketing, etc.; it was an extremely difficult fleet to take on individually. Chris and I met nearly every single day to discuss how we would achieve the final result you’ll be seeing, from how we would rehearse, work with the cast, how we’d film and schedule, and ultimately; how we would edit it. We had (3) weeks to pull it off and I don’t recall Chris and I having a day off. I’m incredibly grateful and honored to be involved with the project and working with Chris. Chris was extremely collaborative, as I am. This made it so much easier. It was the first occasion we worked together and I was amazed at how much we agreed on things, were on the same page about everything, and jumped in whenever an opportunity called. There was never any hierarchy – we came to work and our passion for the story never swayed, despite exhaustion and hot Arizona summers. We were both flexible and collaborative, but knew precisely what we wanted and how we wanted to go about it. It was remarkable how alike we were on all aspects. We also had a blessing of help from our Stage Manager Travis and our Editor David Chorley to help make this journey go swimmingly."
What can you tell us about the cast for this show?
Chávez: "The cast for this show is top notch. It’s like a “who’s who” in Phoenix theatre. A few actors playing multiple roles makes sense on stage, because those character shifts can be performed easily with a costume change, a lighting element, or other stage “magic”. Additionally, for one actor to play multiple roles, there is hardly any time to be off stage if any. In casting the 40+ actors, it made things easier on them in that although there was a quick crunch time, it was very little time commitment for them. That usually equated to an hour directing session and an hour of film time in most cases. Seeing one person in each of the roles (with a few exceptions) also gives us a better sense of realism, instead of theatricality, which was what we were going for. What also made this production special is that we had the unique opportunity to be able to utilize actors who, previously but no longer, reside in Phoenix, by coaching them virtually, and having them film their scenes themselves. "
Rockwell: "This was a wonderful group of folks who all just killed it, rehearsing and performing (for the camera). Like the community in the script, everybody involved cast-wise had some emotion to the material and couldn’t wait to share it with the audience. The play is normally done with (8) people playing an array of characters. We gathered a community of our own to tell the story, and it makes the experience all more real that (40) or so performers were involved to make it more impactful. If you don’t end up feeling something at the end of the performance; I encourage yourself to get checked out by a shrink or some professional."
Why do you think this show is still relevant today?
Chávez: "Matthew Shepard’s death occurred 22 years ago and despite this tragedy, the LGBTQ community still continues to fight for hate crime legislation and equal rights. There are hate crimes and attacks that still continue to happen daily to LGBTQ individuals and other marginalized communities. All because one groups ideals don’t align with their own. Yes, we as society have come a long way in the fight and struggle for equality, but that fight is far from over, and will probably never be. This show has many parallels to the social injustices that are happening in our world right now and is just as important now as it was when it first premiered."
Rockwell: "This is an essential story to not just engage in, but present to the public (especially in such a disquieting moment in our society where hate continues to be a tradition despite our small steps to be better each and every day). Not only because it features some captivating theatre techniques Chris and I could explore on film in a virtual platform; and solid acting from local performers in the Phoenix Metropolitan area. It’s a piece which makes you feel something. And it’s my hope it’ll make one strive to be a better person, in some capacity."
What do you hope audiences will take away from your production of this play?
Chávez: "This is a play that will stick with you long after you have watched it. I hope that lingering feeling will start some much needed dialogue about what needs to be done so that all people will be treated equally and not be persecuted for simply being who they are and living their truth. The LGBTQ+ community has come under scrutiny for far too long for just living their lives. We in the LGBTQ+ community just want to know that we can live as freely and safely as we were meant to be. All in all I hope this piece will move you and in some sense, perpetuate some much needed societal change."
Rockwell: "My hope is our production will initiate a dialogue/discussion on the drive home or at the dinner table, as well as show our LGBTQ friends they are loved and accepted."